Lincoln: a communication masterclass

Daniel Day Lewis recently won an Oscar and a BAFTA for his superlative portrayal of Lincoln in the film of the same name. Placed in a testing context, balancing ethical and personal dilemmas in order to create significant change, Lincoln is faced with the choice between bringing a vicious civil war to a swift end thus saving lives and the conflicting need to prolong the war in order to ensure his promise to abolish slavery is enshrined in law. Further personal pressure is added by his wife’s anguish over their remaining son’s desire to enlist in the war.

In this situation of complexity and ambiguity we see an example of authentic leadership being played out. Day Lewis portrays Lincoln as a man of vision and ethical principles and in the service of this vision he is a wonderful communicator. While recognising the need to be politically astute in picking out key people to influence, he doesn’t engage in rhetorical grand-standing, but rather diffuses tensions and wins agreement by picking key people out and having meaningful conversations with them. He tells personal stories, listens, reflects, empathises and is assertive when appropriate, adapting his approach to each encounter without compromising his values or his vision. In Day Lewis’s Lincoln, the sheer humanity of the man along with his courageous choices inspired me. I left the cinema longing for leaders we want to follow – ones who can take our Institutions through the change they so badly need today.

So where are the Lincolns today? Yet, inherent in that question could be the root of the problem. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for more Lincolns, we should rather be looking for more individuals to take up leadership roles who are prepared to know and trust their own humanity, and willing to rely on their followers to take up the challenges of a complex world. To this end we could argue that current leadership development programmes are missing the point by concentrating too much on standardised behavioural competences and not spending enough time encouraging aspiring leaders to be authentic and relational. To be an authentic leader requires a discipline of rigorous self – challenge, reflection and learning how to understand and connect with others.

So, can we learn from the legendary effort Daniel Day Lewis put into becoming Lincoln? To convince an audience of a character’s validity the method actor will dive into his own lived experience to find experiences that link him convincingly him to the character. Similarly the aspiring leader needs to know why leadership calls him or her and really get what they stand for before they can be convincing leading others. Lincoln showed that someone with this self-awareness and capacity for reflection, has the resilience to tackle complex and constantly changing situations and deal with ambiguity from a clear ethical perspective.

Trust, belief and goodwill still exist in our organisations which, while badly dented, are desperately needed to make change happen –now. If we could start supporting leaders to know and show their humanity in appropriate communication behaviours and if we could show them how to stand in others’ shoes and hold meaningful conversations that motivate and engage, maybe then we would develop the people and the leaders we need and want to follow.

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